Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, June 21, 2010

Query Critique Monday: My Critique

Thanks again to childrenschampforlife for submitting the query for critique! I really appreciate the author's willingness to submit for public dissection.

There were some clever turns of phrase in this query and I think the spirit behind it feels jaunty and fun, though the premise and the tone seems a bit on the young side even for middle grade (ages 8-12). I wonder if it's more geared to an early reader or chapter book? Mary Kole has a terrific post about the importance of knowing your category, as well as one about children's book word counts and a category breakdown. It's crucial that you know where your book will land and use the right terminology (and the word count is missing here).

But more troubling, I'm very concerned about the way this reads: the query has typos, sentence fragments, and improper punctuation. It is so so so so so important to put your best foot forward when querying an agent. And there are mistakes made here that authors just shouldn't make. But if this doesn't reflect the author's best attempt and it's simply sloppy, hopefully this will serve as a slap on the wrist.

Lastly - don't send queries exclusively! Don't do it! I don't ask for an exclusive look, and if you query one agent at a time you're going to be old and gray by the time you're finished. Much better to send queries out in batches.

Overall, I enjoy the spirit and tone behind this, but worry about the presentation.


SUBJECT: Query: The Pompous Pachyderm, middle-grade-Exclusive

"The Pompous Pachyderm." A big nosed bigot of an elephant who comes of age in a place that doesn’t respect animals sentence fragment. He Espen is a selfish, uncivil character who treats his fellow “inmates” at the Calamity Zoo of California like moldy cantaloupe I like this line, but I don't know why inmates is in quotes - I think you can trust the reader to get the joke that he's referring to the zoo animals as inmates._Watching as his parents are sold to a circus while becoming separated from the only trainer he ever knew, furthers his inclinations that he doesn’t need anyone’s help, and he shouldn’t have to help anyone this is a worrisome sentence - it's improperly punctuated, it reads far more adult than the rest of the query, and I'm afraid "furthers his inclinations that he doesn't need anyone's help" doesn't make sense to me. There was also an extra space at the end . Espen shows that elephants are not only one of the largest land mammals on earth but also may have the largest egos I like this, though "one of the largest land mammals" is improper - it would either be "some of the largest land mammals" or "one of the largest types of land mammals".

The animals of Calamity Zoo of California, unnecessary comma end up in various predicaments which our protagonist refuses to help them with another troubling sentence - "various predicaments which our protagonist refuses to help them with" reads very awkwardly. When Espen mistakes a ball, unnecessary comma for his favorite snack (cantaloupe) he gets it stuck in his trunk. He then tantrums and treks off in search of the other animals for help. While on his one man (mammal) another place where I think the author should let the agent just get the human/animal joke fellowship he notices the zoo is on fire. Espen then too many "then"s lumbers to where the other species of life are to get him and the zoo some help. The animals all spring into action and work together to get the ball out of Espen's trunk, unnecessary comma so he can help put out the fire.

I work within the field of Early Child Hood Education and currently serve as an Associate Teacher. I am also a father of 2 not necessary to mention and integrate Erik Erikson’s psychosocial development theory when creating material for children also not necessary to mention - more important to focus on the storytelling than any sort of message that you're trying to include. I would avoid any suggestion of an agenda . Thank you for considering “The Pompous Pachyderm”


Stephanie said...

Great critique!

Anonymous said...

Great critic. Thank you to the brave submitter and to Nathan for taking the time to show us instead of just telling us.


*kristen*isbell* said...

I really enjoyed the critique and the query. Always good things to remember and a story that sounds like a lot of fun...

Also, really good to know about the whole 'exclusivity' thing- was told that some agents take offense upon being informed that you're querying elsewhere or even refuse to read further or consider (!) so really good to know that not everyone feels that way and that there are agents out there who realise that single submissions are NOT time effective and simply let writers get on with it. Brilliant.

Best of luck to the author, by the way, and I, too, loved the mouldy cantaloupe....

Dr. Nick said...

Thanks for submitting. Don't forget...childhood is one word not two.

Julie Musil said...

Thank you, Nathan. And thanks to the brave author, for posting your query so the rest of us can learn along with you.

Marilyn Peake said...

I agree with Nathan’s critique. As a non-agent, I was pretty excited that you mentioned Erik Erikson’s psychosocial development theory, a fascinating theory on personality development. For a query letter, though, I’d recommend leaving it out, as Nathan already suggested. Best of luck with your writing!

Kristin Laughtin said...

I very much agree with your critique. It seems like the author has a cute idea (although obnoxious-adult me is wondering about the time it will take to get the ball out of the elephant's trunk while the zoo is on fire, and wants to know more about what made this elephant so jaded anyway) but needs to work on mechanics a little bit.

D. G. Hudson said...

Great example of your editing prowess, Nathan.

I suspect that this query is an early attempt by the author, who will now be able to polish it. Isn't that the purpose of these critiques? We all learn, but the author gains the expertise of an evaluation by an expert agent.

Hope we hear about the New York visit, Nathan, if it's something related to writing and the industry.

Mira said...

I love Nathan's critique - spot on as always.

I wasn't looking forward to a query critique, because, well, I'm not a fan of queries, but I found this surprisingly interesting and helpful.

For one thing, I would have made some of the comma mistakes, too. Sheesh.

I guess I'll add that I like the elephant as a metaphor. So many kids feel like they are lumbering, stick out and don't have anything to offer.

This also sounds like a fun romp. I also think that having an (what's the term?) anti-progragonist (?) works well in kid's books.

I want to say something about the Erikson stuff. I think it's really risky to put that in, unless you're applying specifically to a psych publishing company. If the agent doesn't know Erikson, they'll probably be irritated. Almost every status, other than celebrity, is leveled when it comes to agents, from what I can see - professors, business folks, rocket scientists, we're all the same to them. Agents evaluate our platform, not our knowledge base - at least at first. So, again, you're likely to just irritate them, frankly.

And if they do know Erikson, I'm not sure what stage you're writing about? Mistrust vs. Trust? Industry vs. Inferiority? Both? You'd be better off stating up front what the stage was, otherwise, it's confusing.

But, frankly, I agree with Nathan - let the story sell itself. If it speaks to Erikson development, that will shine through in a story that's on target.

Good luck! I love the idea of a bunch of animals running around a zoo - and the elephant learning that he has something to offer and has friends.

Magdalena Munro said...

Thank you for the critique Nathan. When submitting queries, I look to agents to assess my work/idea and not my grammar. The onus is on the writer to ensure their grammar is 100% clean when querying. I always have 2-3 trusted reviewers check everything I craft before submitting and recommend that this writer do the same.

Corra McFeydon said...

I love it when agents critique! I didn't know 'agendas' were to be avoided in a query. :-)

(Not that I have one...)

*suspicious whistling*


- Corra

The Victorian Heroine

Cyndy Aleo said...

Maybe I'm getting more of a feel for this query thing than I thought, since the critique was pretty much what I had in my head.

I do have a question about the exclusivity, though, from an agent perspective. What should an author do in that situation? I have a friend who got a partial request from an agent with a fairly big-name agency, and when she did the polite thing and sent it along with a disclosure that x number of other agents also had a partial or full, got an earful from that agent about how wrong it was to query that way, etc. As writers, should we ignore knowing that it's in our best interest to query more than one agent at a time?

Meg said...

I may be revealing some kind of ignorance here, as no one else has mentioned this, but to me this didn't read like a mid-grade story but rather one for younger children, even PB level of complexity. Perhaps it's the subject matter--talking animals overcome species stereotypes, band together, and save the zoo--but I had trouble imagining it as mid-grade.

That said, great critique and great courage on behalf of the author to post it! Keep up the critiques, Nathan, they're super helpful. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm embarrassed that I don't know this, so I'm gonna have to post anonymously.

You said: I like this, though "one of the largest land mammals" is improper - it would either be "some of the largest land mammals" or "one of the largest types of land mammals".

Why is "largest types of land mammals correct" when "one of the largest land mammals" is not? Do you mean "one of the largest type of land mammal"? That's the only way it makes sense in my brain, but I sadly don't know enough about grammar to be sure. Sigh. I should have paid more attention in school.

Nathan Bransford said...


With the caveat that I'm not a grammar expert myself, the whole sentence is: "Espen shows that elephants are not only one of the largest land mammals on earth"

Since "elephants" is plural, it doesn't make sense for them to be referred to as "one of the," which is singular. You either have to pluralize the one to "some" or have the "one" refer to something plural, as in "types."

mfreivald said...

I really appreciate this whole exercise. Thanks to both our host and submitter.

Jill said...

Hooray for random selection! Great way to get beginner, intermediate, and advanced queries and pages. Nathan, I hope you continue to randomize.

Lydia Sharp said...

Good crit.

Children's Champ said...

Thanks to Mr. Bransford and the members of this forum for slapping my wrist as well as enlightening me. The query was rushed, and done at the moment I decided to submit. Everyone’s feedback is much appreciated as I am a rookie in the game, and currently self teaching my self the art of writing for an audience. If anyone in Nathan land has the time to critique my work further, (stories, synopsis, package, treatments, query and cover letters) I would be eternally grateful! Thanks again!

The total Manuscript is 5535 words.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Children's Champ -

Your word count is low (very, very) for MG, and it's too long for a PB. Have you considered making it a chapter book? (One of those easy read things like Junie B. Jones)

Children's Champ said...

Thanks Josin L. McQuein, Mr. Bransford and Mary Kole. Early reader chapter book is the quest me and Espen will embark on!

abc said...

This sounds like a really cute idea! I agree with the chorus of chapter book champions. And having a newish reader in my family (she's six and has gone through all the Junie B.'s and Magic Treehouses) I'd be excited for something like this.

The query felt rushed and you mentioned it was, so I can only say finish that thing and work on making an awesome query.

Anonymous said...
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Children's Champ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Jack said...

For me, the premises are outstanding for late primary readers who are ready to learn to read to learn information. I've tutored that age group in reading.

However, the voice of the query shifts between adult diction and age appropriate diction. I'm concerned the story does too.

What I like most is posing an elephant as a metaphor for "might makes right," and taking that tired platitude down a notch by showing self-reliance relies on social intradependence.

Kristi Helvig said...

Thanks for doing these critiques--I feel like my query is in good shape but I still learn something every time I read your comments. I should probably go read mine again to check my comma usage. :)

treeoflife said...

Question: How much tolerance would an agent have for grammar mistakes in a query?

While I'm sure you don't want "Me write book. It be good. Give me cash.", I doubt impeccable grammar in a query makes the best potentially selling story. Grammar is probably the easiest thing for an editor to fix.

Nathan Bransford said...


You get a few mistakes, which I'd probably chalk up to typos, but more than one or something especially egregious and it's most likely a pass.

swampfox said...

Wow, thanks to Nathan's blog, I'm not just learning about writing and publishing, but I'm also learning a lot about elephants.

Draven Ames said...
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Draven Ames said...
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Anonymous said...


If you don't even have an agent yet, you are not going to get your book into Barnes and Nobles within a year. I'm not making any speculations into the quality of your book, but publication takes a while and finding a publisher even after you have an agent takes time, too.

Nathan has been gracious enough to offer these Mondays to every follower of his blog. Let's not start hounding him to give up even more of his free time to give away personal critiques to anyone who asks.

Anonymous said...

Quick question for Nathan, the querier and others: the elephant is, of course, the symbol of the Republican party. With that in mind, it's easy to interpret Pompous Pachyderm as a political allegory. Pompous, selfish elephant refuses to help others - until he needs help himself, at which point he pleads for assistance. The other, less selfish animals help him, and he in turn helps save the day. Pachyderm learns lesson: it really does take a village.

Did anybody else wonder if this is part of the author's intent?

Josin L. McQuein said...

Draven -

Even if you DO have an agent, you most likely won't be getting a book in B&N within a year. Publishing's not that fast.

Have you put your query in the thread here to see if it'll win the drawing for a critique or gone somewhere like Absolute Write and tried their query critique forum?

stephen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
stephen said...

The only thing harder than writing a novel is writing the query for it! So many great resources online giving tips and many Agents willing to tell you, up front, what they want in a query. I find that you just have to keep re-writing it over and over.

My humble critique on this query is that the "hook" is hidden within the language. Be more up front about what your book is about. Sometimes you have to keep it simple.That's just my two cents and I have a long way to go myself.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous at 4:40am,

No, but thanks for jumping to conclusions and insulting an entire group of people. Perhaps it would be a good idea to leave politics out of the discussion.

Melissa Gill said...

Thanks for the critique and thank you author for submitting in such a public way.

One suggestion I have would be to research elephants and zoos both. For example, elephants are the largest land mammal, but African Elephants are larger than Asian Elephants. However, no circus would ever buy an African Elephant as they use exclusively Asian.

Also, while an elephant could use it's trunk to put a cantelope in it's mouth, it would not be able to suck one up it's trunk.

Kids are amazingly knowledgeable about these things and they will catch you out if you make an error in your research. Easy fixes, but very necessary.

Children's Champ said...

I wrote this story for children and have no hidden agenda.

The big brute of all beasts might represent the Oakland Athletics, but is not a symbol of the Republican or Democratic Party. Since I am new here, and don’t plan on leaving anytime soon, I will apologize to all I have pissed off. I apologize.

Melissa- This is a FICTION story. I know cantaloupe cannot be sucked into their trunk. I have done my research on elephants and zoo’s alike. If you would like a compare and contrast done on African and Asian Elephants I would be glad to do so. Below are some of the physical differences.

African Elephants have a two fingered trunk, while Asians have one. They also have huge ears while its counterpart has small ones. I could write for a very long time regarding these beautiful behemoths but I won’t.

One final note- Elephants are very altruistic and are said to help other animals and humans when in need. This is the only reason (My love for Stamper the Oakland A’s mascot is the other) I wrote the story.

Thanks to all for being positive and negative.

Anonymous said...

I think the author mentioned that he would try and make this book an early reader book. Perhaps this is obvious, but I just wanted to point out, that if this wasn't written as an early reader, it will probably have to be totally rewritten. In an early reader, you have to watch what words you use, and the sentence structure has to be a lot simpler than any other type of writing. If you're going to go the early reader route, you'll probably want to find some guidelines and hints to writing it.

And don't worry about rewriting. I just went to a workshop with Linda Sue Park--Newberry winner--and she rewrites and revises like crazy. Each of her books go through an average of twenty to thirty major changes--changing POV, taking out a character, etc. She'll rewrite a sentence ten times just to see which one works best. She revises every sentence, every word in a book. She's kind of crazy about it, but then you get her amazing books.

Eeleen Lee said...

always good to see a step-by-step breakdown of the editing process. The more the page looks like a crime scene the better!

Anonymous said...

Jeez louise, some of you are VERY tough. I would be afraid to submit my query from here on out based on some of the comments some people have made.

Just remember, everyone, we all start SOMEWHERE at some point, and kudos to those who have the guts to try and submit and keep at this tough business. A little kindness and encouragement never hurt anyone. Harsh words, however, can.

Josin L. McQuein said...


The only way people get from where they start to where they need to be is if those trying to help them don't soft sell it.

I know plenty of people who post here think my crits are some of the more "harsh" ones, but for the sake of Nathan's rules, what I post here is VERY watered down compared to what I'd tell someone if they posted these pieces at the writer's board I normally frequent.

(I am the proud owner of the Red Pen of Doom (Dooooooooooooooooooooom!!!))

People who critique work for others don't (usually) do it to shred the person's best attempts. It takes to much time and effort to crit for those reasons. They also know the person who posted WANTS help. And you don't help someone with a pat on the head and a thumbs up. Sometimes the "best" isn't good enough.

You get ONE shot with most agents on a project, and if you blow it, you most likely won't ever know why. It's better to be told the truth upfront when there's a chance to fix it. If you can't handle honest feedback, you're in the wrong business. Your first review will kill you.

Mira said...

Well, I did notice that folks were harder on this one than they were on the last couple. I'm guilty of that myself.

It may be because it's a query, so it's less personal, and folks feel less tenative.

But I think it's important to remember that people are posting for NATHAN'S critique. Not ours. They are not asking for their work to be dissected by anyone other than Nathan.

Given that, I think it behooves us to know that we are guests in the critiquing process.

Not to speak for him, but it's clear that Nathan has expressly requested on several occasions that we be kind, sensitive, positive and sandwich our feedback.

I agree with him.

People can only hear so much negative at a time. It's too easy to discourage someone in such a public forum.

If people want to offer stronger feedback, they can always offer it to the writer by giving them their e-mail and taking it off-line.

Cyndy Aleo said...

I don't think there's a need to be rude, but I think blunt is okay. This is a business with a lot of rejection, and, personally, the more negative I get, the more prepared I am. People can be as nice as they want, but even NB is only one agent, and there is a wide range to rejection.

Shoot, I wish someone had been more blunt with me earlier. I feel like I put months and months into writing and editing to finally have someone tell me the book I wrote is unsellable. "Interesting premise, but the reader is never going to buy into the plot without changing X, Y, and Z" all of which completely change the story I thought I was trying to tell. In other words, you can scrap and start over.

Had someone been more honest with me earlier, all that time wouldn't have been wasted, and now #3 hits the drawer, never to see the light of day again. I think anyone even trying to make it in this business needs to develop a skin about 8 inches thick, and, to be honest, if you are going to slap a query together just to try to make the contest deadline rather than working at it and polishing it first, then I think harsh is going to come along with it.

Nathan Bransford said...

Thanks everyone for weighing in. My own feeling is close to Mira's and I hope everyone will maybe consider going another notch over in the direction of gentleness when it comes to the tone.

Some might feel like it’s needless sugar coating and nothing that they’d ask of someone else to do when they’re critiquing their work, and I get that – I’m the exact same way. This is something I had to learn when I started working with writers because I too was originally like, “Look, if you’re a professional, you can handle it,” but I had to learn to temper my critiques so they went down easier. Critiques are easier to hear and act on when the person doesn't feel attacked.

When you’re working with all different types of writers (as all of you are) offering critiques in a supportive fashion is an important skill, perhaps as important as the substance of the critique itself – it’s no less honest, but a lot easier to take. Spoonful of sugar and all that.

Just my two cents!

montronix said...

i love and appreciate this blog. it has saved me time and time again. even though i've had the best agent who has supported my ass for 5 years. he's tried to sell one illustrated book, that didn't sell, and helped with a couple novels, one of which was "too weird" to be my first book. he really believes in the last novel i wrote. he helped me edit it, patiently. i worked on that book for a long long time. he was stoked on it. he still is. he was with a great agency before, but now he's with janklow and nesbit. and i thought that would make it super easy to sell. editors loved loved the book. they loved the "energy" and the "scenes" and the details. but they didn't get it.

but my agent suggested i put out a limited edition to get the buzz going. i had just gotten approved to fund maybe another novel on (which is amazing for creatives). so my novel is on there and i'm looking for 5000 people to donate a couple bucks each.

it's the self publishing revolution. i don't believe in the idea of a handful of people being in control of my writing career (editors/publishers), but i have to agree with nathan in that my agent is so so much more than an agent. he has, at so many crucial times, given me a reason to keep writing. i know that sounds cornball, but when you have someone already who has the title and they like your talent, of course that's going to motivate you to get off your butt and write ANOTHER book. he has been a guide and such a great support.

if you guys want to help shake things up and join a revolution, please help by either donating, even a dollar, or please pass this along on your facebooks and tweets.

nathan's blog helped me when amost everyone turned it down, even though a lot of them wrote back "best submission ever!" when they received it.

i believe in it. i believe in writing. and i'm not giving up and neither should you. things are changing, but thank god for awesome agents who live to champion ideas. xx

here's the link to my novel !

Ishta Mercurio said...

I agree with Mira and Nathan.

I think it's important to remember that as writers, the process isn't, "write book, get feedback, revise, submit manuscript". It's more like, "write book, get feedback, revise, get feedback, revise, get feedback, revise, repeat steps 2-7 until your feedback is that there isn't much to change, revise one last time, get one last okay from your crit group, submit manuscript".

In other words, when you give feedback, you don't have to throw in every single comment that you have about a piece. Pick one or two things that you see as the most glaring and that you think will make the most difference to the manuscript, and talk about those. Leave the rest for the next person to offer critique.

And also point out the positive elements, not only to make the more critical elements go down easier, but also to help the author see what elements of their manuscript they can try to preserve when rewriting it. Remember the difference between "critique" and "criticism".

This is a tough business, but imagine how much tougher it would be if everyone were as harsh a critic as some of the people commenting have been. And if I have been one of those harsh people - and I hope I haven't been - I apologize to Nathan and to the readers of this blog.

MaddyAnne said...


I have to say, your blog has been so helpful through this process of figuring out how the publishing world works. Hopefully one day I'll have a killer query ready for you. Thanks for all of the great examples and advice!


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